Designer Ricki Kline Is Reviving Vintage L.A., One Bar at Time
Ricki Kline at his downtown design studio
It is Friday morning at designer Ricki Kline’s downtown L.A. studio. But with no one else here, it seems more like a Sunday.
“We’re experimenting with a four-day work week,” says Kline, gesturing to a row of empty desks, which he points out have each been custom-designed by the designers themselves to fit their individual needs. A cabinet is fully outfitted with gold-rimmed vintage glassware for the likely event that someone wants a cocktail. Evidently, in order to design drinking spaces, one must drink.
The space is scattered with vintage lamps and fixtures, many of which are relics from the few of Kline’s now-closed projects. Remnants of the Fiscal Agent are especially prized — Kline’s love of the short-lived bar is apparent. “We did beautiful furniture for that room. That’s one of the lights. That’s one right there,” he says, pointing to a standing lamp in the corner of his ninth-story office.
The Fiscal Agent
The Fiscal Agent
"They didn’t have a single stock glass in the place,” he explains, pointing out that unlike most vintage-style bars, the Fiscal Agent actually sourced vintage glassware from swap meets. “When they opened the door, they greeted you with a little Champagne glass with Champagne in it,” Kline remembers. “It was the most beautiful room, the most amazingly set-up bar. It was like his Bentley, that bar,” Kline says of the space he custom built for mixologist Julian Cox.
But Fiscal Agent aside, Kline’s projects are rarely short-lived. Kline, who got his start in his early 20s as a carpenter and construction worker in Northern California, eventually broke out as a successful furniture designer. The myriad L.A. bars and eateries Kline has since designed include acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza, hip coffee shop G&B Coffee, downtown sports bar Brack Shop Tavern, Thai Town wine bar Tabula Rasa, retro dance club Honeycut and Cole’s French Dip and its backroom speakeasy Varnish. But Kline’s all-time favorite is also his first solo project: Three of Clubs, which opened in Hollywood in 1991. “Renée Zellwegger used to be a barback there. She barbacked in yellow Playtex gloves. It was early '90s,” Kline laughs. “And Kevin Spacey posted up there on the regular.”
Tabula Rasa Bar
White Oak Communications
Kline’s approach to designing spaces has shaped the look of L.A.'s nightlife. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Seven Grand, the epic whiskey bar on Seventh Street between Grand Avenue and Olive Street. “People thought that we were all nuts to open up a bar,” Kline says of the idea to open in the then less-trafficked part of downtown.
“Seven Grand is an establishment now, but it was so groundbreaking when we opened it up. Nobody had ever seen anything like it in this town,” Kline points out, noting that most other bars at the time served the same menu of standard, two-ingredient drinks like vodka cranberry and Jack and Coke.
Designing and opening a comprehensive whiskey bar was no small task. Kline and owner Cedd Moses traveled to England, Ireland, Scotland and the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky to research whiskey culture. Kline took note of common style links. “There’s commonalities with hunting and with tartans and plaids, which are Scotch-Irish. I saw that link and then I had this beautiful space to work with.”
“That building was abandoned when we went in,” he says of the building on the now-bustling block of downtown. “So the first thing we did was save the building. We put a brand-new roof on it, built a new driveway.”
Kline recalls that in the process of renovating the building, he came across a religious diorama in the basement. The relic, it turned out, was from Clifton's Cafeteria. In the mid-1970s, “The Garden of Gethsemane” had been moved from Pacific Seas to Clifton's Silver Spoon — where Seven Grand now operates. "There was a fake tree and dirt and the statue is gone," Kline says of his discovery. "The diorama was in place. The only thing missing was Jesus. Jesus had left the building.”
Unearthing the history of downtown Los Angeles and reviving it seems to be Ricki Kline's M.O. When he renovated Cole's French Dip and built the room for the Varnish, his team discovered a staircase that once led to public restrooms from the last stop of the Red Cars. "What’s wonderful about downtown L.A. is that we’re building a new city on the ashes of the old," he says. And embracing these old treasures could be what makes Kline's spaces work. "I try to express what is already there. I don’t try to fight against it. That seems to be kind of a losing battle, to plug something in that’s not going to fit." At Cole's, for example, Kline repurposed an old wooden cooler in the corner of the 100-year-old space simply by slipping a brand new cooler inside of it.
And though Kline has built and designed many private residences over the years, hospitality remains his main focus. "When I do a hospitality project, I get to go in and experience it anytime I want. And the even bigger upside to that is I get to see other people in the room enjoying it and having a good time. I get a lot from that."
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